Many claim to be Christian—but what is a Christian? Most have only a vague idea. Is it enough to “believe Jesus,” or is there more? You need to know!
Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with over 2 billion professing Christians. If you asked most of them what it takes to be a Christian, they would have difficulty giving a clear answer. Is a Christian simply someone who believes in Jesus Christ? Is it simply an emotional religious experience or a one-time, stand-alone decision?
What does the Bible require for a person to be a real Christian? Many professing Christians claim they have had a religious experience and that they “accepted Jesus.” Yet many of those same people live no differently after the experience than they did before it.
So, what is a Christian?
Anyone who is serious about his or her beliefs has an obligation to ask the question, “What is a Christian?” What is it that distinguishes a real Christian from the everyday person? Who or what determines the answer? And where should we go to find the answer?
Only the Bible has the answers to those questions. Acts 11:26 tells us, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” The word “Christian” means “a follower of Christ.” The word “disciple” in this same verse means “student” or “pupil.” This is helpful information. A Christian is not merely someone who professes to believe in Jesus; rather he or she is a follower of and a student of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is an ongoing lifelong process of following the example of Jesus Christ.
A person who claims to be a Christian should demonstrate his or her belief by living the way Christ lived—doing what Christ did—and avoiding what Christ avoided. Christianity is a way of life. The disciples of Christ will follow Him and work at patterning their lives after His life.
There is more to being a Christian than meets the eye
There is a lot more to being a Christian than first meets the eye. To follow Christ, we must study His life and see what He did and how He lived. The apostle Paul instructed Christians to “imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, emphasis added throughout). We are to imitate or live our daily lives following Jesus’ example. Being a Christian goes far beyond just using the title “Christian” or having an emotional experience of “giving your heart to the Lord.”
The apostle John explained more about this in 1 John 2:6: “He who says he abides in Him [in Jesus Christ] ought himself also to walk just as He walked.”
How did Jesus live when He was on earth? The four Gospels in the New Testament describe Christ’s life day in and day out. He dedicated Himself to a life of service to God and to other people. He obeyed the laws and commandments of God and submitted His will to the Father’s will. Being a Christian involves a complete change—the Bible calls it repentance—which is to change from the way humans normally think and act.
Christians put on the new man
The apostle Paul tells us that as students of Jesus Christ we must change. “If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:21-24; see our article “Putting to Death the Old Man: What Does That Mean?”).
This means that, as a result of following Christ and changing to become like Him, we are going to think and live differently from what we did before we were Christians. This change is a lifelong process; one of becoming more like Jesus Christ.This means that, as a result of following Christ and changing to become like Him, we are going to think and live differently from what we did before we were Christians. This change is a lifelong process; one of becoming more like Jesus Christ.
In His instructions to the Christians at Rome, Paul adds some more details to this process. Romans 13:14 informs us that as followers of Jesus Christ—Christians—we should “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” This shows once again that being a true Christian is a way of life, not just an emotional event.
What else is needed to be a Christian?
Becoming a Christian also involves something else. The process of surrendering to Jesus Christ requires repentance of the sins in our lives and yielding our will to God. Paul tells us that we must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins and then strive to live a life without sin. “Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Paul clarifies this in the book of Galatians where he tells us, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). To “put on Christ” is to give up the way we previously thought and to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4).
Romans 8:9-10 shows that following baptism, a Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit—power to help overcome sinful thinking and habits. Paul tells us, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” A Christian is one who has received the Holy Spirit from God. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ actually lives in the Christian.
This Spirit that comes from God has a vital function to play in the life of the Christian. The apostle Paul goes on to explain this in verses 13-14: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”
Simply having the Holy Spirit is not enough; Christians must be led by the Spirit to “put off the old man,” “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and become a new creation.
What is a Christian?
Being a Christian entails more than just “believing in Jesus” or “accepting Jesus in one’s heart.” A Christian is someone who is an active follower and imitator of Jesus, who has surrendered his or her life, been baptized and has received the Holy Spirit. He or she is working to “put on Jesus Christ,” to walk and conduct his or her life as Jesus did when He was on the earth.
A Christian is working to overcome sins and is busy working at becoming more like Jesus Christ, and trying to become “perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It is a lifelong effort, not just merely a one-time emotional decision or experience. And it is a commitment that has eternal rewards—to inherit the Kingdom of God with our elder Brother Jesus Christ forever! Read more about how to become a Christian in our free booklet Change Your Life!